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Teacher Accused of Throwing Away Students’ Black Lives Matter Posters

The ACLU says the incident points to a larger issue of censoring Black students at school.

One of the posters used by a parent volunteer during an art class on art and activism at Del Paso Manor Elementary School in San Juan, California (images courtesy of ACLU of Northern California)

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is requesting an apology and a series of educational measures at an elementary school in Carmichael, California after a teacher allegedly discarded posters about Black Lives Matter that students had made for an art class. The ACLU says that the teacher, David Madden, threw away the posters and ordered the students to redo their works.

The incident occurred on September 17, when a parent volunteer was invited to help teach an art lesson to 6th graders at Del Paso Manor Elementary School as part of the San Juan Unified School District’s Art Docent Program. The docent, who is only identified by the ACLU as Ms. Kincaid (the organization declined to disclose her full identity in an email to Hyperallergic), delivered a lesson plan on how “art can manifest in activism.” As part of the lesson, the docent presented posters on immigration, housing rights, financial aid reform, pay equity, animal rights, and Black Lives Matter. After a discussion in class, the students were assigned to make posters on “something they wanted to see change in their school,” according to a letter sent to the school district by the ACLU Foundation of Northern California on November 21. The posters were meant to be included in a school exhibition.

According to Kincaid, the classroom teacher, David Madden, was visibly agitated during her lesson. The ACLU’s letter describes that when Kincaid asked the teacher to give an additional class about diversity, Madden replied in front of the class that her presentation might be “irrelevant” because his lessons are limited to “a bunch of old dead white guys.” ACLU’s letter says that Kincaid “was obviously confused, and a bit concerned regarding this comment, but did not stop the lesson plan.”

The following day, Kincaid wanted to take some of the posters in question for a future presentation but was then told by Madden that he had ordered four students to re-do their posters. Students later said that Madden threw the original works away. According to the ACLU, Madden told Kincaid that the Black Lives Matter posters were inappropriate for the class. Madden allegedly continued to press Kincaid, asking her whether students were getting shot at the school and demanding answers regarding why a presentation on Black Lives Matter was relevant to Del Paso Manor Elementary. A school exhibition was finally mounted without the Black Lives Matter posters, focusing mainly on pro-environmental messages, according to the ACLU.

Abre’ Conner, staff attorney at the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, added: “The point of the lesson was to create a more inclusive school culture that affirmed the dignity and value of every student. By censoring and punishing the students, the school violated their constitutional free speech rights, and sent the damaging message that supporting Black lives is not welcome in their classrooms.”

Madden, the ACLU claims, was backed by the school’s principal who allegedly told Kincaid that Black Lives Matter lessons are “political statements and therefore off-limits for public display.” Kincaid says she was also barred from volunteering at the school.

“Our schools must do more to listen and learn about the real experiences of their students, which includes the experiences lived by their black and brown students,” said Kincaid, a parent volunteer at Del Paso Manor Elementary School.

“Our schools must do more to listen and learn about the real experiences of their students, which includes the experiences lived by their black and brown students,” said Kincaid, the parent volunteer banned from teaching art classes at Del Paso Manor Elementary School.In its letter, the ACLU demanded a public apology from San Juan Unified School District and asked to reinstate Kincaid’s parent volunteer privileges, allow students to put up Black Live Matter posters, incorporate Black Lives Matter into the district’s curriculum and school events, and provide staff cultural and sensitivity training.

“We are concerned that the District is treating student support of the Black Lives Matter movement differently than other students who express support for other topics and disciplining those students because of it,” ACLU of Northern California wrote in its letter to the school district. The organization called the school’s actions “illegal and unconstitutional” and stated that they violate free speech protections under the California Education Code. The ACLU added that the school has also violated Kincaid’s First Amendment rights by banning her from the classroom for petitioning the principal.

“Our schools must do more to listen and learn about the real experiences of their students, which includes the experiences lived by their black and brown students,” said Kincaid in a statement issued by the ACLU of Northern California. “The message Black Lives Matter should not be controversial. School administrators, teachers, and staff must take a hard look at the racism and implicit biases that they’ve internalized if they are to ensure all of our students succeed.”

The San Juan Unified School District responded in a statement: “The teacher’s understanding of the resulting assignment was for students to produce artwork related to a change they wanted to see within the school itself. Students whose artwork focused on large social issues, which varied in topic, and was not directly tied to the school, were asked by the teacher to complete another poster the next day.

The district’s statement continues:

It is inconsistent with our values and never our intent or desire for any student to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome to discuss issues that are important to them. We sincerely apologize if this experience made any student feel such discomfort. Censoring a student’s assigned work because of its content would not be acceptable. We are open and committed to continuing our work with students, staff, community partners and others to ensure that our school communities embrace a diversity of thoughts and experiences.

This incident, according to the ACLU, is “part of a pervasive pattern of anti-blackness in California schools.”

“Black students in the state, and across the country, are consistently discriminated against and targeted by teachers and administrators, with research showing that they are 3.4 times more likely to be disciplined than white students,” the ACLU said. The organization said it had to intervene in school districts across California, including Fresno UnifiedVisalia Unified, and Alameda Unified.

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